Grief is an intense and complex emotion. It is the natural and appropriate response to the loss of someone or something significant to your life. When it is the loss of a parent, spouse, sibling or child it can be very difficult to bear. When the death is sudden and unexpected the emotional response can be considered traumatic.
Most people are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief, developed when she was working with the terminally ill, and mistakenly apply it to the experience of coping with bereavement. In fact Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ book is called “On death and dying” and the stages she talks about come from the conversations she had with people who were dying rather than the bereaved. She identified the stages as a way of helping people come to terms with their own death.
Applying these stages to bereavement suggests that grief is a liner process and that there is an end. That people will “get over it”.
It is simply not helpful, and it doesn’t happen. What does happen is that in time the bereaved learn to live with their loss
There is no process to grief, it is not linear and there is no time limit on it.
Every day can be a struggle, and the triggers to the emotion of grief are numerous. This is extremely hard to deal with for both the bereaved and the people around them. Albert Ellis, the grandfather of CBT and the founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) which is a philosophical model of CBT, has stated life is not easy, it is not fair and bad things happen to good people, and we always have a choice about how we respond to events.
We can demand that the death should not have happened, that the loss is off the scale bad, and that it is unbearable, all of which are normal and natural responses in the immediate aftermath. However, staying in the grip of that irrational belief, no matter how understandable, is unhealthy and unhelpful. It maintains the intensity of the grief at a level which renders the bereaved person unable to function, to eat, to sleep and to look after others in their care. Such a belief maintains the denial of an extremely difficult reality.
The reality of grief is stark, it is painful, uncomfortable and untidy, and it is individual. In the early stages of grief there is no “normal”
However, accepting that is difficult to accept reality is an important step in getting on with living and is part of grieving. Accepting the reality that this tragic event has happened without demanding that it shouldn’t have will change the present reality. Acknowledging the truth that the death of a loved one is as bad as it gets, and that whilst the world as previously known may have been forever altered, the world has not ended and life does go on. And to fully acknowledge that although it may ‘feel’ unbearable at times it is bearable and as tough as it is to get through each day it is possible to take one step at a time and get through.
This is the attitude that can allow the bereaved to grieve appropriately and healthily, without denial. It is difficult to understand how and why, particularly in sudden or unexpected death. Demanding that it shouldn’t have happened leads to a much greater pain for the bereaved than accepting that it has happened.
REBT is humanistic and existential model of CBT. It is concerned with the person as a whole and the experiences that exist for all of us including suffering. It teaches us how to respond to suffering and adversities in a healthy way.